Calls Intensify for DA to Reopen Probe into Buena Park Police Shooting of 19-Year-Old David Sullivan

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Nearly 20 people either called on the District Attorney to reopen a probe into Sullivan's killing or denounced police violence in Orange County.

One month after police shot and killed a homeless, unarmed Black man in San Clemente, dozens of people during an Orange County Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday turned everyone’s eyes to another incident that went by without as much attention:

“David was just 19 years old when he was murdered by the Buena Park Police Dept. in the City of Fullerton. He was unarmed,” said Deanne Sullivan, the mother of a 19-year-old man who was shot and killed during a traffic stop last year, in public comment.

Through tears, Sullivan called the officers who killed her son “excessive and reckless with a 19-year-old’s life. My son died as a result of their panicked actions. They did not do their job that day.”

She then asked District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office, which investigated the shooting but opted not to criminally charge the officers, “to do their job and reopen this case for David. We want the DA to reopen the case and let my son get the justice he deserves.”

She was joined by nearly 20 public commenters who spoke either in support of her or in scathing — and profane — criticism of the county supervisors who approve funding for both Spitzer’s office and countywide law enforcement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept.  

They used the microphone to publicly call on Spitzer to reopen the case against Buena Park Police officers Jennifer Tran and Bobby Colon, who in August last year stopped David Sullivan in Fullerton, noticing his vehicle’s expired registration tag.

At first interacting with officers in a cooperative and calm manor, video of the incident from a body-worn camera showed Sullivan suddenly attempting to flee with the car, hitting another vehicle, then trying to flee on foot when the officers shot him seven times.

Before the traffic stop, Sullivan had stolen $1,000 in cash and merchandise from the gas station where he worked, and the car he was driving was also stolen, investigators said.

DA officials then probed the shooting, but in a June 8 report this year concluded:

“There is a lack of sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any criminal culpability on the part of Officers Colon and Tran, and there is substantial evidence that their actions were reasonable and justified under the circumstances when they shot and killed Sullivan on August 19, 2019.”

The DA report said Sullivan’s shouting of obscenities and charges toward officers made them fear for their and others’ safety, and also details that one officer, Colon, said he saw Sullivan reach for his waistband, thinking he may have had a gun without seeing one. Sullivan didn’t have one.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Spitzer’s office on Tuesday defended the non-charging decision, adding: “As with the case in any investigation or prosecution, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office will always consider any new, pertinent information at any stage of an investigation, including after the legal conclusion has been rendered.”

The DA’s office statement also claims Sullivan “left an apparent suicide note in his wallet addressed to his mother, brother, sister, and grandmother. The note closed with, ‘I truly love you all. David.’”

Sullivan’s family, and members of the public on Tuesday, disagreed with the outcome of the DA probe into the officers’ actions.

His mother described him as someone just trying to make extra money while his family tried to care for his ailing father — someone with many different interests who took part in many different activities in school. 

“He made friends a little slower than some,” Deanne Sullivan said during her comment. “But when he was your friend he was your friend.”

Many called out supervisors by name that day, asking them to join their calls for Spitzer to reopen the case and criticizing them for not paying attention to their comments. 

“Your complicity in a broken system of public safety is costing human lives,” said one speaker who identified herself as Katie N from Santa Ana. “You boast — specifically Supervisor (Andrew) Do and Chair Steel — in your campaigns that you’re taxpayer advocates, but refuse community input on how to spend our tax dollars; you continue to allocate the largest percentage of our discretionary budget to services grossly named public protection.”

Over the last decade, the Orange County Board of Supervisors shifted millions in public dollars away from public health agencies and services while doubling the sheriff’s spending budget.

Katie N pointed to the shooting last month of Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man in San Clemente, by an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy. “You allowed another Black man to be murdered by law enforcement.”

The killing prompted new public scrutiny over Sheriff Don Barnes and protests in the city the  following day. Sheriff officials insist Reinhold, during an altercation with two homeless outreach deputies who approached him, reached for a deputy’s gun. Spitzer’s office is also investigating that shooting, and the county Office of Independent Review is also planning a probe into it. 

Reinhold’s family has since filed a wrongful death claim, saying his death was unjustified and avoidable.

“David Sullivan, Kelly Thomas, Kurt Reinhold — their lives have been unjustly taken,” said one speaker who didn’t identify himself and held a sign reading ‘Jail Killer Cops.’

Before that, he said “You guys have the power to set a precedent, to make a statement … but instead, time after time again you guys don’t. You guys like to have the perception that you’re helping, the perception that you’re a taxpayer advocate — I’ve been getting all your mailers, Michelle Steel. I get 15 of them a fucking day. Please stop.”

Steel responded by asking Leon Page, the county’s top lawyer, “When people are cursing do we still have to listen to them? I’m really tired of this.”

Page said the speakers’ use of profanity — since it’s not disrupting the meeting — doesn’t preclude them from their speaking time. 

The next speakers got the message, and continued to swear the supervisors off. 

“Michelle, it’s really funny you think cursing is offensive, but when families are standing here telling you that children are dying at your hands, that’s not offensive to you?” said one. She paused briefly, then yelled “FUCK.” 

Steel walked off, but the speaker continued: “this is for the people at home who actually give a shit.” 

Toward the end of the speaker’s comment, Do interrupted, saying her time was up. 

“Fuck you guys,” she responded. “Your time’s up.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.